A Five-kilometre Economy

Revivifying neighbourhoods, defying globalisation

It is nearly 200 years now since Friedrich (Sr) and Elise, of Barmen, Germany, banished their rebellious son Friedrich (Jr) overseas, for something of a gap year. Hard work in their Manchester cotton business would sort young Friedrich out, or so his worried parents hoped. After calling in on another young radical, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels arrived in Manchester in 1842, and realised immediately that the city stood at the heart of a revolution. For generations, families had survived through a local craft in cotton cloth conducted from barns and cottages. By 1842, these clothmakers could no longer compete with capitalised cotton mills such as Friedrich’s new workplace, Ermen and Engels’ Victoria Mill. ‘The invention of the steam engine and machinery for working cotton’ had killed off the neighbourhood cottage trade, replacing artefacts with commodities, claimed young Engels. Transnational milling firms were marshalling workers into a new class conflict, while a novel world was thrown up around them: the industrial city, marked by massive factories, shoddy housing and terrifying new diseases.

A new cotton trade

Two hundred years later, in response to our fears of disease, another home-based cloth and cotton industry has suddenly appeared. Its artefacts signal an alternative to the capitalised globalisation so well understood by Engels, and whose global supply chains have suddenly collapsed. Across Melbourne’s suburbs, masks have become symbols—patterned, coloured, in experimental shapes. They’re not quite products of an entirely new craft, but all the same these signature handiworks, stitched on sewing machines in kitchens and lounge rooms, suggest a reversal of the centralising workplaces that confronted Engels in Manchester.

New spaces

Melburnians are displaying their masks in a refashioned city too. Whereas Manchester firms like Ermen and Engels concentrated workers in vast impersonal mills, our pandemic disperses workplaces. It is not too hard to imagine a suburban household with schooling in one room, mask manufacture in another, and a white-collar worker somewhere else, sitting at the home computer and working for a corporatised employer. Chooks and vegetable patches are multiplying in backyards, and in some front gardens too. For some of us this new household economy brings relief—no more office surveillance. For others the home is turned into an environment more psychologically disorienting than Engels’ portrait of pre-industrial clothmaking. The contradictions of the labour process intensify as they relocate from factory or office to home.

As work decentralised, so Melbourne took on a different shape. For weeks during lockdown our city was recast as a mosaic of overlapping circles, held together like pebbles covering a beach. Every home became both a workplace and a central point for a tiny circumference, each with its 5-kilometre radius. The circles, piled and stacked, with each edge marginally different to the next, marked margins to our daily lives. Marxist geographer Henri Lefebvre would have called the circles ‘differential space’. For where these circles overlapped most intensely, around shopping strips, corner stores and walkways, anonymous suburbanites invented a new social solidarity. In once-ignored open space, we now confer use value on sportsgrounds and their decrepit changing rooms or rusted barbecues. Locked down in our circles, we grew more aware of the failings, the eerie beauty and the possibilities in these local spaces. They continue to lay bare a spatial inequality, apart from the profitable, privatised places, new housing estates and high-rise apartments, that is mapped into the developers’ abstract city-space. The pandemic accentuates such spatial inequality since it has concentrated infections in suburbs with the most degraded public spaces and the most insecure work.

Neoliberalism revised

As neoliberal theorising grapples with the pandemic, its frameworks still demand abstract spaces, to be commercially realised through the land market. Our new urban ideography remains largely hidden from economic modellers as they search for a profitable ‘road’ out of lockdown. In a process described by David Harvey as ‘accumulation by dispossession’, urban services and infrastructure owned by voters have been sold off, reducing the state to Ferdinand Lassalle’s night-watchman. More than fifty years of these fire sales has transferred wealth upwards. The pandemic has only accelerated this wealth transfer to the global super-rich. Billionaires—we are told by a Swiss bank, no less—‘did extremely well’ at the height of the COVID crisis, boosting their wealth by more than one quarter. Two of the world’s richest tech entrepreneurs added over US$150 billion to their capital stocks in 2020. 

Global construction consortia, not quite so enriched as celebrated entrepreneurs, can now look forward to harvesting Australian tax dollars for their megaprojects. For those at the other end of the wealth scale, the workers most exposed to the virus, neoliberal theory still promises casualised, deunionised workplaces. The theory clings to a fragmenting disciplinary oversight over the victims of globalisation, less ‘red tape’ for commerce and more for the unemployed. ‘Opening up’ from the pandemic sounds very much like saying that profit comes before people. Exalting individual rights (it was Margaret Thatcher, after all, who insisted that there was no such thing as society) over social solidarity, neoliberalism demands that life return to its free-market ‘normal’.

The new solidarities of suburban space

There is another response to the crisis. It relies on an urban form distinct from that produced through speculative construction. During Argentina’s successive economic collapses at the opening of the twenty-first century, workers and immigrants built their own localised response to disaster in the poorest barrios of Buenos Aires. They invented barter exchanges in garages, sheds and church halls. These allowed simple swaps of services and goods outside the destroyed economy of comprador capitalism. Millions were signed up to these networks, which inevitably turned to political action, symbolised by masks and scarves. The neighbourhood, as observers of Latin America’s resistance to neoliberalism insisted, had become the new factory.

In Australia, communities had searched for answers to the perceived impact of globalisation long before the advent of COVID-19. In the 1990s, as the flow of imported goods debilitated old forms of production in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, the people of the electorate of Wills voted for a left-independent. Although neoliberals, and some on the Left, chose to paint this political response as little more than myopic economic nationalism, the reality was far more complex. These commentators had failed to understand that the discussion around tariffs was a metaphor for protecting a way of life. It remained consistent with the Keynesian principles of government investment in the economy (no one today is opposed to the government borrowing massively to ignite the economy in the wake of COVID). At the heart of the rejection of the ALP in Wills was the belief not only that old forms of politics no longer served the community but that governments had a role in conceptualising and funding new forms of economic life. 

Believing that the region contained the skills and sufficient comparative advantage to compete with globalisation, we developed an industry policy, New Ways in Wills (1992). In that document we noted that: 

The moment has arrived for another great change. In our schools, factories and our streets and shopping strips we need to seek out new ways of dealing with the crisis of the moment.

Our 10-point plan called for funding local cooperative enterprises as a means of regaining some control over the local economy; regional authorities to assist industry, drawing on the research strengths of universities and TAFE colleges; and the introduction of new communications technology. The fundamental premise of New Ways in Wills was that every community had its distinct comparative advantage, visible in local cultures. Wills, we argued, had cultural traditions that could sustain specialised food processing, cultural tourism and renewable-energy research and technology. One pilot project involved CERES Community Environment Park in Brunswick. At the time CERES was developing its EcoHouse. We sought sufficient funding for CERES to play a major role in the style and planning of future housing in Moreland. The EcoHouse has since then become a feature of CERES’ contribution to an annual Sustainable House Day. Rather than high-rise apartments, we had also proposed shop-top development in Sydney Road that was respectful of local architectural design and funded by industry superannuation funds. Today, as super funds grow more concerned about ethical investments, such housing projects seem even more important. We argued for the retrofitting of older properties so that the elderly could remain in their own homes. Thirty years later, developer-driven apartment buildings have radically changed Brunswick and Coburg. The role of a highly capitalised construction industry is now one of the major questions facing candidates seeking election to Moreland City Council. Care for the elderly has reached its own crisis point.

It might interest Arena readers to know that after the Wills by-election of 1992, former Arena editor Doug White offered the following thoughts in a letter to Phil Cleary. The by-election result, he pointed out, ‘was a triumph of what people would have once called Mao Zedong thought and the mass line, we tell the masses clearly what they say confusedly’. Doug went on to make a few points about economic nationalism, remarking that 

Tariffs are OK for a time, but not forever as a generalised policy. After all it is a way of life, and actual lives, we are protecting, not just an economy. Some things need federal policies, some need local policies and practices, and some need state government support. 

Doug never wanted to sound like an ‘old Fabian socialist’, and so stressed that his reimagining was based on ‘policies and legislation which allow and encourage people to take affairs into their own hands’, rather than relying on ‘bigger government controls and interventions’.

Socialising North Sydney

In an urban landscape vastly different to Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Ted Mack and his allies had already given local networks the tools to, as Doug White was to say, ‘take affairs into their own hands’. On Sydney’s plutocratic northern harbour shores, Ted revolutionised political dynamics. As mayor of North Sydney, Ted sold the mayoral Mercedes so that council could buy a community bus. He brought the community into municipal decision-making, opening council meetings to the public and using the bus to bring the socially isolated into local precinct workshops through which residents could vet policy. He went on to put key strategies to local referenda. Local leaders then made all public land in the municipality available for public housing—something of a challenge in a suburb largely structured around harbour views. Working alongside local people, Ted secured sites for libraries, and the council restored North Sydney Oval. Council workers planted 50,000 street trees. 

New powers

The communal reshaping of North Sydney in the 1970s, and a cultural economy of Coburg and Brunswick envisioned in the 1990s, depended on imaginative local government. Lefebvre would have recognised this need too, since he insisted that national authority could only be challenged by ‘“local powers”…the capacity for action of regional or municipal forces linked directly to the territory in question’. And yet since Lefebvre’s time, neoliberalism has managed to marginalise local political structures. Restrictions on borrowing at municipal level, privatised certification for building, and municipal managerialism modelled on the profit-making corporation have not left much scope for social change. At the same time local-government agencies do struggle bravely on. Local libraries, even though many face recurrent budget cuts, have transformed themselves from text repositories into creative hubs. Local governments are linking together to take up the challenge of climate change (see, for example, the C40 Cities Network). Expanding progressive initiatives to a scale where they are locally transformative probably requires wresting planning control back from developer corporations. It calls for environment action in holistic terms, rather than placing the urban and the natural in antagonism. As in Ted Mack’s North Sydney, it is about building budgets on the basis of well-being, and expanding the tools for direct democracy. The pandemic has demonstrated the limits to centralised state control and the advantages of the local. If localising public health works, as COVID contact tracing makes clear, then there is no reason that other state functions could not operate more effectively when moved from central agencies into the neighbourhood. 

Local renewal

There are not too many places with the rich civic resources that Ted Mack could build on in North Sydney. Even so, all local environments have their communal spaces, however degraded many have become. The transfer in 2020 of the workplace to the home has brought us into daily contact with these places. Their redesign as recreational rather than simply natural spaces, their reuse and protection, call for a new combination of skills and a creatively trained workforce. Survey after survey now demonstrates that even the most depoliticised suburbanites want the environment protected and climate issues addressed. Working from home gives local government the rationale for providing a locally controlled source of renewable energy. It is, after all, not that long ago that inner-city municipalities ran their own energy supplies. 

Walking to a nearby park will often take us through sad local shopping strips, now made all the more depressing by COVID lockdowns. Even before the pandemic these once-lively precincts were hollowing out, dying perhaps because of recalcitrant landlords or by relying on too narrow a range of goods and services. Instead of seeing these strips as little more than stages for high-rise apartments, we can use them imaginatively, for shop-top social and communal housing in the first instance. They can be reinvented around decentralised health and welfare agencies. We can think of them as cultural hubs (in much the same way that central business districts have seen new life after becoming central activity zones). A combination of state health provision, private and public housing at a human scale, and communal spaces can revive strips beyond the imagination of traders’ associations. Since universities have locked themselves into funding research through international students’ fees, the time is right for an alternative in free, localised education and research, housed in what were, before 2020, simply half-empty shopfronts. 

Local networks

Reimagining local government, and embracing local shopping strips and parks, depends in the end on grassroots social engagement and localised cultures. Left activism has put a lot of faith in what Manuel Castells called ‘urban social movements’—grassroots groups usually brought together to resist some loss of public space. Naturally, these groups are critical to local revival. However, they remain, in essence, defensive, trying to prevent a change initiated by the development industry. Over the years since Castells first identified them, these movements have come and gone, unlike older voluntary associations of the suburbs. Sports clubs, for example, are essentially tied to a locality and have a vital interest in the long-term survival and improvement of public space. The struggle to transform the locality needs these older social networks, and also has to try to change them. In some localities a change is already taking place, as seen most clearly in the way suburban football clubs are being rapidly feminised. 

Another set of social relations forms within our factories at home. Feminist urbanists have long argued that the household is a productive unit, its value never fully acknowledged. Now the productive relations of the household are at the centre of the new social solidarity while simultaneously raising questions about exploitation, mental health and privacy. The office now invades the home. In the process the home workplace has become a new site for criminal and corporatised exploitation of personal data. This invasiveness requires us to question labour organising around traditional unionism. Pandemic-era labour has been combined with unpaid household work. This localising and digitising of life and work enables new forms of workers’ organisation, in which unpaid or casual labour, and control of the workplace and of personal data, are critical. It inevitably requires a feminised response, although guided by a form of feminism that values the home worker’s factory floor over the corporatised glass ceiling. 

When conservative politicians repeatedly spruik ‘shovel-ready’ projects, we might surmise that they are not quite perched on technology’s cutting edge. Engels understood two centuries ago that novel power sources were going to undercut hand labour. Reactionary ‘shovel-ready’ megaprojects, fascinating as they remain to the conservative mind, create their own vacuums. By returning to the strategy of giant infrastructure, and largely ignoring the creativity of ‘small tech’, current policies force the most imaginative to look elsewhere. They do not do that much for women’s work or empowerment. If local governments could support innovative ‘small-tech’ digital projects, they would immediately strengthen local economies. Rates could be levied on corporations who exploit the resources of home workplaces in the same way they once used industrial estates. Without thinking too much about it, we have all grown used to a digital world in which a handful of enormously powerful corporations treat end-users indiscriminately. Local digitised manufacturing, independent from globalised and exploitative production chains, depends on wresting control of what is now a hierarchical, centralised digital system by means of local, cooperative enterprise. The grassroots can then control data and begin to challenge the wealth and power of the tech giants, a task for which national governments are no better fitted than they have been for their (failed) attempts to control climate change.

Local and global

Melbourne obviously cannot remain a set of small circles through which each locality functions as some new autarky. Challenges to tech companies, the great beneficiaries of lockdowns, require global as much as local cooperation. Control of casualisation is a national if not transnational issue. All the same, shifting financial resources and control to the local level, especially in those areas hardest hit by casual work and pandemic infection, offers a radical alternative to both bureaucratic centralism and taxpayer funding for global construction consortia.

Twenty-eight years after New Ways in Wills proposed putting the community at the centre, politically and spatially, with strategies designed to counter the impact of globalisation, responses to COVID-19 are taking us down a similar path. It’s encouraging, for example, to see opposition leader Anthony Albanese commit to social housing and childcare, plans that can increase opportunities for women to work. Unsurprisingly, these important strategies stop short of any direct challenge to the free market’s failings. We have identified above the local sites and strategies that communities need if we are to tackle the climate emergency and gender inequality while creating a sustainable economic life. The ALP has proposed childcare arrangements that benefit the social and economic lives of women. We need to go further and develop plans to counter violence against women. Just as overly centralised and unwieldy bureaucracies failed when forced to grapple with COVID containment, so too have they struggled to protect women from violent men in the refashioned economy. In New Ways in Wills we proposed ‘funding of local co-operative enterprises as a means of returning some control over local economy to the groups which make up the local community’. That strategy is as relevant today as it was when the old manufacturing jobs began to disappear in the 1980s. In 2020, however, we need cooperatives that do more than address the local economy. We need them to play a role in devising innovative approaches to the social relations of the community, including what we now call gendered violence. A new approach, founded on the locality and driven by women, should underpin policy. This should include the funding of a designated office attached to a cooperative that liaises with those local agencies currently engaged in responses to men’s violence against women. Ultimately, this national crisis can only be properly addressed at the community level.

Post-COVID suburbs

Here we are in late 2020, confronted by some successful but many failing responses to a global pandemic. Those wealthy nation states mesmerised by Thatcher-Reagan neoliberalism have constructed the most inept responses to the virus. In Australia, Canberra’s largesse, momentarily driven by Keynesianism, has turned away from state intervention as quickly as possible. It was far more useful, it appears, to simply fund the private sector. As an alternative, what we turn to here are a set of neighbourhood places, localised productive activities and a form of political engagement, enclosed within the lived culture of the local. Expanding on the more innovative aspects of local government, especially those built around participatory democracy, and transferring critical agencies in health, education and welfare to the locality together change local relationships and resources. Maybe we will be able to put aside our handcrafted masks in 2021. Nonetheless, the creative energies they symbolise, the networks within which they are cultural forms, the landscapes we invent as we wear them, are just as revolutionary as those discovered by Engels in the first wave of industrialising globalism. Engels left Manchester with a fully formed picture of the consequences of capitalised cotton production. The workers in the mills where he toiled away as a clerk would feel a common purpose, a sense of class solidarity opposed to mill owners like his father. As he travelled through English cities, Engels began to sound less confident. In their streets, life seemed to go on in an individualised rather than collective fashion, and here he lamented 

 …the dissolution of mankind into monads…of which each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms is here carried on to the utmost extreme.

The dispersal of our workplaces can reinforce this hyperindividualism. Alternatively, we can build on the new work routines, creative energies, social solidarities and environmental awareness brought on by lockdown. The pandemic has been a global tragedy. But in Melbourne the very extremes of lockdown point us in a new direction, in much the same way as the extremes of exploitation in Engels’ Manchester turned his mind from humans as monads to workers’ solidarity and its possibilities.

About the authors

Phil Cleary

Phil Cleary was a premiership player and premiership coach with Coburg in the VFA/VFL. A writer and former teacher, he was the Independent member for Wills (1992–96) and is a long-time anti-violence campaigner.

More articles by Phil Cleary

Chris McConville

Chris McConville is an historian who has worked at several universities and for local government and community groups in planning and heritage projects. His most recent book is Hanging Rock: A History.

More articles by Chris McConville

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